Saturday 25 June 2011

The Great Stink

In the year 1858, Londoners could be seen crossing the River Thames with handerkerchiefs over their noses.  The House of Commons staff had to soak their curtains in lime so as to not smell the stench coming in the windows.  And London's cemeteries were bulging at the seams with sometimes as many as 14 graves, one upon another, their occupants having succumbed to a dreaded disease called cholera.  This was the year of The Great Stink.  London, the world's largest city, had many congested areas where clean drinking water was at a premium.  Human waste was dumped into the River Thames at an alarming rate, especially with the invention of flush toilets.  The industrialized city also had hundreds of factories dumping toxic waste into the river.  Londoners took note that people who drank the water were falling ill and dying at a rapid rate, with major cholera outbreaks in 1831 and 1854.  As a short term solution, many residents started drinking beer or even gin to avoid getting sick.  Apparently, even children were given beer.  However, this practice gave birth to many alcoholics.  It wasn't until 1858 and the Great Stink, where many Londoners considered abandoning the city, that city planners finally got serious about the problem.  The solution came with Joseph Bazalgette's sewer system in the 1860s.  After the installation of the sewers, the River Thames lost its foul smell and its waters became palatable once again.  Only one other cholera outbreak occurred, in 1866, and its origins were traced to the River Lea, a tributary of the Thames. 

Cartoon courtesy

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